Friday, May 29, 2009
The operation to remove all UK vehicles and equipment from Iraq continues, with this week seeing a massive haul being shipped out of Kuwait to be returned home.
The civilian roll-on/roll-off cargo ship MV (Motor Vessel) Eddystone left Shuaiba Port on Monday, 25 May 2009, carrying everything from quad bikes to armoured vehicles and helicopters. The ship is bound for Marchwood military port in Southampton.
As the responsibility of the Joint Force Logistics Component (JFLOGC), transporting all kit destined for re-use by the Armed Forces is in full swing as UK combat operations in Iraq have come to an end.
JFLOGC is a deployable headquarters, currently stationed in Kuwait. It is responsible for co-ordinating the efforts of around 1,300 personnel working in Iraq and Kuwait to recover six-years-worth of accumulated equipment and send it home in good order.
Soldiers from the Royal Logistic Corps' 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, based at Marchwood, have been in Kuwait for nearly a month loading a series of massive cargo vessels permanently leased by the Ministry of Defence, one of which is MV Eddystone.
Major Darren Osborne, from the JFLOGC, said:
"By the time the equipment gets to us it's already been inspected and repaired where possible. This has been a well thought out operation, seven months in the planning, and it's far in advance of any other operation I've been in.
"Everything's going back in better order than it would, with minor faults identified and repaired if possible, and can go through the refurbishment process if needed."
A new database has been created to determine exactly where up to 20,000 different types of stores will be distributed around depots in the UK and Germany and in what state it should leave Iraq.
Inspections are identifying faults which can be repaired before kit leaves Kuwait, saving time and making it available sooner to troops. A record of all documentation, including inspection records for every piece of kit, will also be kept as a full audit trail.
MV Eddystone will be arriving in the UK in June 2009 where its cargo, including Mastiff armoured personnel carriers and four Lynx helicopters, will be unloaded by the same soldiers who loaded it on.
The ship's master, Captain Paul Hamlin, said:
"The process has gone remarkably well, particularly the quality of work and support from the loading troops who have done a very good job."
The ship's crew is all-British and are sponsored naval reservists, which means they can be required to serve in war zones.
This is the seventh visit so far of a roll-on/roll-off vessel during the UK withdrawal from Iraq and several more visits are expected before the end of June.
The British Army has finished combat operations in Iraq and the military are currently bringing their personnel, kit and equipment home although some personnel, notably from the Navy, may be staying on to train their Iraqi counterparts.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
SISTERS Lauren and Megan Cooke cannot contain their joy as they welcome their father Sergeant Richard Cooke home from Iraq.
Sgt Cooke, from Swansea, was part of 15 Squadron RAF Regiment which returned to Honington in Suffolk yesterday.
They were among the final frontline troops to leave Basra.
Lauren, five, and Megan, nine, were joined by their mother Sue, 40, and clutched banners saying “Welcome home Daddy” and “We missed you”.
Mrs Cooke said: “I had a bit of a tear when I saw him. The children have been so excited.”
Sgt Cooke said Iraqis exchanged gifts with troops on their last patrol. “We gave them duvets and they gave us rings,” he said.
LITTLE Thomas Berryman, four, waves as dad Chris hoists him on his shoulders as 15 Squadron RAF Regiment returns home from Iraq.
Sq Ldr Chris, 40, was one of 40 personnel greeted by family and a piper at RAF Honington, Suffolk, last night. They are among the last UK frontline troops to return.
Chris said: “I am pleased we’ve left Iraq a much better place than it was six years ago.”
Corporal Chris Smyth, 26, hugged his five-month son Ethan and wife Sarah, 28.
FAMILIES gathered last night for an emotional reunion with the last of the British combat forces to arrive back from Iraq.
The gunners of 15 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment, which is based at RAF Honington, near Bury St Edmunds, had been part of the RAF's force protection wing at Basra airport.
Yesterday, having flown into RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, 37 gunners made the final leg of their journey home to Suffolk.
As they stepped off their white coach onto the tarmac at the Suffolk airbase they were applauded by family members, friends, defence minister Quentin Davies and fellow military personnel from 1st Battalion the Royal Tank Regiment, who are also based at RAF Honington and who arrived back just a few days ago.
For 26-year-old Corporal Chris Smyth, arriving home had added poignancy because it was the first time he had seen his son Ethan in the flesh since he was just seven weeks old.
“It is tough,” said Cpl Smyth. “But we've got a job to do. Seeing Ethan is fantastic - I have been sent pictures pretty much every day.”
His wife, Sarah, 28, said: “Having him back home is really fantastic and exciting and a relief.”
That excitement was shared by Megan and Lauren Cooke, aged five and nine respectively, who made small banners to welcome home their father Sgt Rich Cooke.
Sgt Cooke said: “It is brilliant to see the girls - it has been a long way home. Being out in Iraq was the end of a task for the British. The villagers were really sad to see us go and they gave us presents to say thanks for everything we have done. We can't believe we were the last few back.”
Megan Cooke told how she had delayed having her fifth birthday party so that her father could join them.
Describing life while her husband was on tour, Sue Cooke said despite this being Sgt Cooke's third tour in Iraq it “doesn't get any easier for the family”.
Squadron Leader Chris Berryman, 40, said: “This has been hard work in a hard environment with very real threats. I am pleased to say that every one of my team has lived up to the challenge, they have responded to this most difficult of jobs as I would expect of any member of the RAF Regiment: with vigour, enthusiasm and a determination to see the task to the very end with total professionalism.”
The US military has now taken over the running of Basra airbase, where 12 members of 15 Squadron RAF Regiment remain in order to ensure the safe withdrawal of UK kit and equipment from Iraq.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
24 May 2009: Soldiers of the RAF Regiment's 15 Squadron prepare for and conduct the final British patrol in Basra.
The Force Protection of the Contingency Operating Base, or COB, at Basra International Airport has – from the initial operation to occupy the country – been the responsibility of the Royal Air Force, delivered by Force Protection Wings which deploy for 6 month tours.
The final Force Protection Wing to deploy, commanded by Wing Commander Simeon Sharples (42) from Louth, recently handed over their responsibility for protecting the base to American Forces. The US have taken over the COB at the airport which includes a number of remaining UK personnel who are tasked with ensuring a safe and ordered withdrawal of all UK forces’ kit and equipment from Southern Iraq.
“I am immensely proud to be here as our mission in Iraq draws to a close and we prepare to leave,” commented Simeon, who was also in Iraq at the outset of hostilities in 2003.
Since their arrival, the RAF Regiment and other elements of the Force Protection Wing have been instrumental in fostering relations with the Iraqi people in their patrol area. Now Simeon sees that the tribal infighting of 2003 has given way to co-operation between tribes and families as Iraqis pursue new economic opportunities unavailable under Saddam’s regime.
As his troops prepared for their final patrol a few days ago, Simeon said: “I regularly visit village leaders and over time we have developed genuine trusting relationships. To me, the proof that Iraq is changing for the better is that these days my guys can go out and work alongside the Iraqi police and Army and help develop something close to a normal policing role.”
He added: “I see great potential for this country and I find the fact that my guys have had a significant hand in helping achieve that – alongside our colleagues from all three services - immensely satisfying”.
At the forefront of the Force Protection Wing’s activities are the RAF Regiment Squadrons who have rotated through the COB in 6 month tours. This week sees the return of 15 Squadron to the UK commanded by Squadron Leader Chris Berryman, (40) from RAF Honington, who is completing his third tour in Iraq. He deployed with 115 RAF personnel from his squadron to Iraq in early February.
“This has been hard work in a hard environment with very real threats”, he said as the last patrol carried out their weapon checks. “I am pleased to say that every one of my team has lived up to the challenge, they have responded to this most difficult of jobs as I would expect of any member of the RAF Regiment: with vigour, enthusiasm and a determination to see the task to the very end with total professionalism”.
Reflecting on his tour he said: “Our Regimental history has been linked with Iraq since 1922 when 3 RAF Armoured Car Company was formed at Basra. The Iraqi people have been our friend for a long time and I like to think that we have now invested in their future”.
However there has been a price to pay for the rewards of the RAF Regiment. Four of their gunners have been killed on operations in Iraq, three during one rocket attack in July 2007. In its time the Wing has responded to many incidents ranging from intruders to the airfield to combating insurgent rocket teams targeting the airfield, who launched over 220 attacks on the base during one three month period in 2007.
The sad loss of Leading Aircraftsman Martin Beard from 1 Squadron RAF Regiment during a battle with insurgents marked a low point in the history of the RAF Regiment; however the bravery of the Squadron members under fire was recognised when Corporal Dave Hayden was awarded the Military Cross for his acts of selfless bravery during the fierce battle. Other Squadron members were awarded honourable mentions for their activities on that day.
This weeks final patrol was led by Flying Officer Jon Giffin (26) from Gloucester. He estimates that this is the last of over 5,000 combat patrols that the Wing have conducted in the past six years. His ten man patrol equipped with both agile Weapons Mount Installation Kit or ‘WMIK’ and the more robust Mastiff patrolled into the small hours of the morning covering ground that so many of his colleagues have grown to know intimately over the past six years. Whilst theirs were the last combat UK boots on the ground in Basra, there is still much work to be done by the many troops remaining in Iraq.
15 Squadron’s vehicles, kit and equipment must now be prepared for an ordered return to UK with hundreds of tons of similar military hardware. This job has fallen to the Joint Force Logistic Command. They will remain in Iraq until every item on the Iraq military inventory, from Chapsticks to Challenger tanks, are cleaned, checked, fixed, packed and properly accounted for and then shipped to their next shelf, camp or warehouse ready for use again.
The patrol was welcomed in by Royal Marines Brigadier Paul Stearns the Commander of British Forces in Iraq. “It gives me great pleasure to see our combat role come to an end” he said “The RAF Regiment have provided a pivotal function here in Basra, they have afforded us and the local population the peace of mind that we are safe going about our business in and around the base.” he added. “We can now look forward to a new relationship with the Iraqi people, one of close co-operation in terms of economics, culture, commerce, defence and development. Without the efforts of the Force Protection Wing and all the three services’ personnel who have served in Iraq over the past six years, this would not be possible”.
On behalf of the RAF Force Protection and RAF Regiment capability at headquarters Air Command, Group Captain Andy Hall said: “This is time to reflect on the considerable commitment that our people and families have made over the years in Iraq, their professionalism, grit and determination. Our thoughts especially go out to those who have died whilst serving on this operation, they will always be remembered.
“The return of our final combat troops from Iraq marks another important phase in our very proud history. The men of the RAF Regiment have risked their lives daily over the past six years, so that our other servicemen and women can go about their missions as safely as possible. It is a great testament to their efforts that the lives of the local people have improved through the security that has been provided, along with projects to enhance their way of life, education and agriculture – this is, after all, why we came to Iraq in the first place. This is an honourable end state and the RAF Regiment should be proud of its legacy in Iraq and the immense capability that it has to offer.”
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
As the drawdown in Iraq gathers pace, RAF Hercules aircraft and their crews will be the last to fly out of the region later this year.
Having been the mainstay of operations since May 2003, the aircraft are helping transport more than 4,000 troops and their kit back to the UK.
24, 30, 47 and 70 Squadrons based at RAF Lyneham have all been deployed to Iraq over the last six years, with the first two squadrons using the 'J' variant of the C130, spending the most time in Basra and the Middle East.
A permanent deployment of engineers, ground crew and air crew (made up from all four squadrons) has been working through freezing conditions, sand storms and intense heat in Iraq since the beginning.
Sgt Jason Griffiths, an RAF gunner, is currently deployed at the Contingency Operating Base just outside Basra, helping to provide critical security to the multi-national military.
The 40-year-old former Ash Green pupil - know as “Griff” to his colleagues - was initially deployed to Kuwait with the collation forces and in January 2003, when the invasion first took place, he moved to the port of Umm Qasr and ended his first six months in Iraq being stationed in Basra.
“I was the Junior Non Commissioned Officer in charge of the Combined Incident Team responsible for providing protection for RAF Helicopters as the British Forces advanced north from Kuwait,” said Sgt Griffiths.
“I have really enjoyed working in Basra. Interacting with the local Iraqi population, in and around the surrounding area, has been one of the best parts of the job.”
After joining the RAF in1986, Sgt Griffiths has had various roles, including jungle operations in Belize, desert deployments in Afghanistan and active service in Germany and Cyprus.
At home, he is based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire - and, as an avid Coventry City supporter, always looks forward to watching his team in action at the Ricoh.
Monday, May 25, 2009
Turkey will release more water from its dams along the Euphrates in order to help its neighbor Iraq, which is facing drought. An Iraqi delegation appeals for help, drawing attention to the plight of local farmers. In response, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu says Turkey will allow as much water as possible to flow into neighboring Iraq and Syria.
Following Iraqi complaints, Turkey yesterday confirmed that it had opened dams on the Euphrates to allow more water to flow into Iraq to help the neighboring country cope with drought.
"We know the situation is worsening in Iraq due to the drought. Necessary measures are being taken to increase the quantity of water," a foreign ministry official told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
An Iraqi delegation led by Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of a Sunni-Arab bloc in parliament, held meetings with President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to request the release of more water from the Euphrates, the region’s largest river. According to diplomatic sources, al-Mutlaq informed Turkish leaders on the impact of the drought. "The Iraqi farmers were in a very difficult situation," he said.
Two days after the delegation’s meetings in Ankara, the issue was also discussed yesterday in Damascus between the foreign ministers of Turkey and Iraq, Ahmet Davutoğlu and Hosyhar Zebari. "We had a wet fall. Especially in the last 15 days. We’ll give as much water as possible to our Iraqi and Syrian friends," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told reporters..
"We understand the difficulties of the farmers in Basra. Their difficulties are our difficulties. Their future is our future. The expectations of the farmers in Iraq and Syria are equally important for us," Davutoğlu said.
For his part, Zebari said that Iraqi agriculture needed more water, adding: "Turkey has made an important decision on the water. Water flow will be provided soon. A good amount of water from Turkey’s Euphrates will meet a great amount of Iraq and Syria’s needs."
The regions’ two main water sources, the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, start in Turkey and pass through Syria and Iraq. As downstream countries, Iraq and Syria criticize Turkey for not allowing enough water to flow into their territories. As relations between the three countries were improved in recent years, the tone of criticism softened but never fully ceased due to growing drought in the region.
50 percent increase
According to Iraqi officials, Turkey has increased the flow of water by 130 cubic meters per second, making the flow of water to Iraq 360 cubic meters, up from 230 cubic meters. Turkey gives 500 cubic meters of water to Syria upon an agreement signed between the two countries in 1987. Both Iraq and Syria want Turkey to increase that quantity to 700 cubic meters per second.
Iraq's parliament voted last week to force the government to demand a greater share of water resources from neighbors upstream of its vital rivers, Turkey, Iran and Syria, turning up the heat on long-running disputes. They agreed to block anything signed with the nations that did not include a clause granting Iraq a fairer share of water.
FOREIGN MINISTRY’S THREE-PART PLAN FOR TWO RIVERS
A memo posted on the Foreign Ministry’s official Web site indicated Turkey’s official position and proposal for an overall solution to the problem, saying: "The problems of the Euphrates and Tigris basin are not going to go away. Turkey, Syria and Iraq will always be neighbors and the two great rivers will always flow through them." Accordingly, Turkey designed a three-staged plan for the equitable use of the trans-boundary watercourses of the Euphrates-Tigris basin on the grounds that the two rivers actually formed a single basin.
The first stage aims to compile an inventory of water resources, covering the whole range of available data on the rivers and their water, including evaporation, temperature and rainfall levels. Compiling an inventory for the land resources is the second stage, to find out water requirements for each country. In the third and final stage, potential methods of irrigation would be established in the light of an analysis of water and land resources.
The 100 men and women with the Army’s 793rd Military Police Battalion’s headquarters unit have been in Iraq so long they’ve seen units arrive, serve their 12 months, and return home.
Finally, with less than a month to go on one of the Army’s last 15-month tours, the military police are headed back to Bamberg, Germany — "to the hefeweizen (wheat beer)," as one soldier said Saturday.
The unit has spent the last months of their tour working with the Iraqi police in Basra, who are on a 15-month journey of their own.
In March 2008, about the same time the 793rd arrived in Baghdad, the Iraqi army swept through Basra and cleaned out the Shiite-backed militias who waged much of the violence in the area.
During the campaign, some Basra police either joined the militias or abandoned their posts, according to Marine 1st Lt. Mike Masters, the intelligence officer for an Iraqi army training unit inside Basra.
Now the police must try to clean up that bad reputation. The locally-hired police must also prove their worth to the Iraqi army, who are outsiders but remain the dominate law enforcement authority in the city and province, Masters said from his unit’s operation headquarters at Naval Base, a U.S. outpost next to an Iraqi Army base in the city.
The military police units are preparing the police to take over in Basra, one of Iraq’s most populated cities, according to Lt. Col. Mike Blahovec, the 793rd’s battalion commander.
"It’s an important police force, on par with Baghdad," Blahovec said last week during an interview in his office at COB Basra. "The difference here [with the situation in Baghdad] is the partnership is new."
In December, the battalion and its attached companies — 900 military police in all — were among the first U.S. troops to move to Basra to begin the transition from British to U.S. military.
Since then, those police split into about 30 U.S. military police transition teams, called PiTTs. Those teams moved in with Iraqi police around the province, which holds 1.8 million people and the country’s second-largest city.
Currently there are about 20,000 Iraqi police in Basra province, though about 10 percent have yet to go through basic training, which is about average. Iraq is bringing large blocks of recruits in before running them through a training class, according to Army Capt. Jay Cash, a 793rd member and the intelligence officer for the police training team working with the provincial-level police in Basra.
Internally, the Iraqi police’s biggest obstacle remains their supply chain, a common problem in police units throughout the country, Blahovec and others said. Partly that’s a funding problem at the very top of government, they said.
But it’s also partly cultural.
Iraqis tend to look at a successful supply chain as one with a closet full of goods rather than one with a series of empty shelves, even if the materials are simply being used, at smaller stations or among officers, Masters said. To complicate things, it’s a sign of weakness for an Iraqi commander to ask for supplies, the Marine said.
"Just getting them to submit the forms is hard," he said.
Blahovec has similar concerns. But he said the police training teams are making progress in other ways. He also said the U.S. teams have adjusted the way they measure success.
"It’s a subjective assessment you make," he said Thursday. "Are they are at work? In uniform? Are they willing to get out into the community? How are they responding to crimes?"
Some things are more black and white. Last week, the battalion shared one of its "watch lists" of suspected criminals with the No. 2 Iraqi police chief in the province. The general promised to hand over similar information from his troops in the future.
Earlier this month, the top police chief in Basra survived an assassination attempt outside his home. A police lieutenant colonel was not as lucky and died last weekend in an attack.
"The police get targeted just as much as coalition forces," Cash said.
Blahovec said goal is to prepare the Iraqi police to secure Basra without the help of the Iraqi Army.
"At some point the Iraqis will pull the army out of the city," Blahovec said. "Then the police will be the only game in town."
That point may come sooner than the Americans, or the Iraqi army, want. Rumors are that the newly elected Basra officials want the Iraqi army gone as soon as possible, according to Masters.
"We’ve been told that it’s coming down," Masters said. "The [Iraqi police] can’t handle it yet."
Saturday, May 23, 2009
THEY were among the last British soldiers to serve in Iraq.
And now a group of Notts combat engineers – including a number from the Territorial Army – have received medals for their work in the British Army's final stint in Basra.
The Sappers included members of the TA's 73 Engineer Regiment, who served alongside their affiliated Regular Army unit, 35 Engineer Regiment, as part of 20th Armoured Brigade.
The 20th – also called The Iron Fist – was the last combat brigade in Iraq.
This week the men and women of the 35 and the 73 became the first members of The Iron Fist to receive their campaign medals.
"It was really good to be on the last tour, definitely," said Sapper Stacey Devine-Bradbury.
When she's not fulfilling her TA duties she works as a legal secretary in Mansfield.
"It's going to be really strange just sitting behind my desk. Christmas was spent on the roof of a police station in Basra city where we were upgrading the building."
Lyndsey Dove, from Mansfield, was promoted to Lance Corporal during her time in Iraq. During part of her time there her husband, who is also in the TA, was serving in Afghanistan.
"It's nice to be able to say I was there at the very end. It's an achievement and I'm glad to have done it," she said.
Corporal Dougie Douglas, a lorry driver with Dairy Crest in Nottingham, has completed his second tour of Iraq and he saw a country that was getting better.
"There's been a lot of improvement," he said. "I think overall the British Army has done an excellent job. I was proud to be a member of the team."
The Commanding Officer of 73 Engineering Regiment Lt Col Alex Hilton had flown from Nottingham to present the medals to the TA soldiers.
"I'm delighted they've all come back safe and sound," he said.
"But I'm particularly pleased and very grateful to 35 who have, as far as I can see, integrated them wonderfully and made them feel part of the team.
"It's the future for the TA, closer and closer integration with the Regular units, and it seems to have worked a treat here."
Families and other well-wishers attended the medals ceremony in Germany and watched as the troops paraded, accompanied by the Heavy Cavalry and Cambrai Band, in front of the regiment's headquarters.
The TA soldiers will now enjoy a couple of months off before returning to their civilian jobs.
Police forces on Thursday arrested 21 wanted men and seized dozens of unlicensed vehicles during security operations in Basra, the Basra police’s information office said.
“Policemen on Thursday (May 21) waged crackdown operations in separate areas of Basra, during which 21 wanted men were arrested and 30 unlicensed vehicles and 17 motorcycles were seized,” the office told Aswat al-Iraq news agency.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
DFID Representative, Iraq
I'm the lead DFID representative in Basra, Iraq. Here we're focussed on developing the Iraqi provincial government and the local economy. I lead the local programme work and provide development advice to UK and international civilian and military colleagues.
It’s been a hectic couple of months in Basra (you may have noticed I’ve not posted recently). The big story has been the drawdown of the British military from the province. I’ll write about that in a future post. For this post I wanted to write about DFID’s work to encourage inward foreign investment to Basra (and Iraq more generally). This has unsurprisingly had a lower profile but has been an interesting, atypical – for DFID - but very successful part of our programme. It also hit a recent high with the Invest Iraq event DFID held on the 30th April in London.
So why have we been working to encourage companies to come to Basra. Because, as I wrote in an earlier blog, unemployment is one of, if not the, major issues facing the province. One way of creating jobs and also of raising living standards and providing goods and services is through encouraging foreign companies to invest and set up operations in the province. It’s not the only answer – Basra’s still going to need huge amounts of government and domestic investment – but it is likely to be part of the answer.
To date our work has taken two approaches. Firstly, we’ve actively gone out to potential overseas investors to sell them the idea of investing in Basra. And I should add here that we’ve not focused on UK companies but on any companies worldwide that might potentially and credibly be prepared to invest significantly. For those that were interested we brought them in to Basra and Baghdad to see the opportunities for themselves and to meet with key people.
In just over a year we’ve brought in twenty different companies to Iraq. Often these visits have included trips into downtown Basra city or to other key sites, for example the port at Umm Qasr. And for these trips we’ve often drawn on the support of the military, for example using military helicopters to move people around or military escorts to provide security; support that’s been both invaluable and has reflected the military’s enlightened approach to supporting the development effort (and interestingly the Iraqi military here in Basra have also expressed a desire to help visiting investors coming to the province).
Secondly we’ve been working with the provincial investment agency, the Basra Investment Commission (BIC), to develop their capacity so that they can generate inward investment without our help. The BIC’s the official legal investment promotion agency for the province. DFID’s Secretary of State Douglas Alexander attended the launch of the BIC in Basra in November last year. Since then, and with our active support, the BIC’s come on apace and it’s now supporting visits from investors without our direct involvement.
As part of both strands we’ve supported investment events, held in conjunction with the BIC and the National Investment Commission (NIC) to promote Basra and Iraq to interested companies. Last year we supported events in Kuwait, London and Istanbul. This year one of the high points in Basra was a visit by Lord Mandelson along with a twenty four person delegation of high ranking British businessmen. On the 6th April we, together with the British Consulate and the BIC, hosted an event at Basra airport attended by two hundred Basrawi businessmen, politicians and local government officials.
The latest milestone was the Invest Iraq event in London on the 30th April. DFID co-hosted this along with the Iraqi NIC. This had a focus on encouraging investment to Iraq as a whole rather than just Basra. Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki led a delegation of over 100 which included just about the entire Iraqi cabinet plus government officials and Iraqi business people. From the investor side over 250 of the world’s biggest companies attended, including most of the UK’s leading firms from the oil and gas sector and financial sectors and numerous other household names. Interest was such that we had to turn away a further 200 companies in the days before the conference. I attended on behalf of DFID Basra. As the military would say the ‘atmospherics’ were terrific with a definite buzz to the event.
So what success have we had in getting companies setting up here in Iraq? Well it’s clear that there’s a lot of serious interest. The trick of course will be to turn this interest in to actual investment, operations and jobs on the ground. In truth for this it’s still early days – foreign companies are instinctively cautious and decisions on investment can take months if not years – so it’ll be some time before we see the full fruits of our labours. The Iraqi Government will also have to seize any opportunities that are presented. I am however very hopeful. Recently the BIC approved its first Investment Licence for a $100m tourism project funded by a Kuwaiti firm. There are also a number of other companies on the brink of setting up operations here in Basra.
And where do we go next with this line of work? Well we, DFID, are moving away from the direct investment promotion game and London was our last major event. Increasingly the Government of Iraq can and should do this for themselves. We will however be continuing our support to help them to do this - we’ll be continuing to work with the NIC in Baghdad and the BIC in Basra – and we’ll also be working with the Government of Iraq to make Basra an easier place for companies to do business.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
SOUTHEND is playing a key part in helping to rebuild Iraq following the withdrawal of British troops.
Iraqi students are set to flood UK universities and colleges in a bid to lay the foundations for the reconstruction of the country which has suffered years of dictatorship and war.
Southend Adult Community College is one of eight UK colleges and organisations involved in the Rawabit partnership project. Groups of principals, followed by deputies, heads of department and lecturers, have spent weeks learning about the colleges.
Those taking part in the project aim to take something back to Iraq by supporting their counterparts with new courses set up in the country. Ali Hadawi, principal of the adult college in Ambleside Drive, said: “The thinking behind it is to build on the capabilities of the Iraqi vocational and training sectors to respond to the needs of the country and to be a force for positive change in building the new Iraq.
“We have been working on this for the past five years with our Iraqi counterparts to build leadership and management and to show how we interact with local employers.”
Iraqi-born Mr Hadawi said the project targeted unemployed people and those who had little chance to succeed under the old Iraq, particularly women who have had no education.
On his recent visits to colleges in Iraq, Mr Hadawi says he has noticed real changes.
He added: “The vocational education and training sectors are very well placed to do this work. Colleges in Iraq have acknowledged the UK has been the most successful in this because we have never approached it with the attitude that they need to be doing this or that.
“We work with them in terms of what they require, then show them what we do in the UK, and leave it up to them to work out what’s best for them.”
The scheme has focused on employment initiatives such as enlisting businesses, such as the Rafidane Bank, to provide work experience, so newly-qualified students have some idea about the work they might eventually do.
This year, 500 Iraqi students will be coming to Britain under a new scholarship scheme, and thousands more will follow.
The scholarship scheme aims to send 10,000 Iraqis a year to universities and colleges in the UK, US, Canada and Australia.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
CORPORAL Ian Evans enjoys a welcome-home kiss — as the last Army combat troops serving in Iraq arrived home yesterday.
The final homecoming of heroes from C Company, 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, signals relief for thousands of forces families after six long years.
Amid emotional scenes at their barracks in Paderborn, Germany,Cpl Evans embraced wife Amy and two-year-old daughter Page and said: “It’s good to be back.”
Amy, 23, added: “I missed him loads. It’s been difficult.”
Fittingly, the battalion is the Army’s most decorated after their heroics during three Iraq tours.
Private Brian Wottrich, 19, of Southampton, said: “It feels like I’m part of something historic.” Their commander, Major Giles Francke, added: “I’m proud and happy to have my troops back.”
The soldiers, dubbed the Armoured Tigers, guarded the final convoy of military equipment to cross the border to Kuwait.
Only a few hundred logistics troops and RAF Regiment soldiers remain in Basra, southern Iraq, as the final British parts of the air base there are packed.
A further 400 Royal Navy sailors are staying on at the port of Umm Qasr, to train the fledgling Iraqi Navy.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Music filled the air at the emotional reunion for around 30 soldiers from 1 Royal Tank Regiment who returned home from a six month tour of Iraq last night.
Piper Major Jason Sumner played Highland Laddie as the soldiers who were the last combat troops to leave Iraq, stepped off the coach to be met by their families at their base: RAF Honington in Suffolk.
Around 70 soldiers deployed to Iraq in November where they were in charge of the UK Military Transition Team Group (MiTT) – consisting of over 1000 men across 1000 square kms.
Around 16 MiTTs, were embedded in Iraqi Army units as mentors. Soldiers from 1RTR provided support, advice, training and specialist capabilities. They also helped the Iraqi Army plan and conduct dozens of successful major search operations.
Piper Lee Watson was greeted by his wife Nikky and his six-month son Ryan. Piper Lee last saw his son in February when he was home on leave. “I can’t believe how huge my son is now. I had a good time out there, it was a good experience but it feels good to be back. Now I’m looking forward to spending some time at home relaxing and enjoying some quality time with Ryan.”
Wife Nikky, whose brother Trooper Daniel Herschell served with Piper Watson in Iraq said: “It’s great to have them both home safe. It’s not been too bad whilst they’ve been away because we stayed in touch and I had Ryan to keep me busy. But I’m glad they are both back and we can now spend some quality family time together.”
Sergeant Major Stephen Hodson was delighted to be back home with his wife Sarah and his nine-month old daughter Eve. He said: “The last time I saw Eve was January and she has changed so much. Like everyone I am now looking forward to some leave to spend some quality time with our families.”
The Regiment has had a near continuous presence in Iraq since the start of the Operation in 2003. 40 of the soldiers who deployed in November returned home last week.
1RTR Commanding Officer, Lt Colonel Gavin Thompson said: “It’s fantastic to be back safe and sound after a successful tour. A transformation has occurred in Basra that is bringing peace and the first real signs of prosperity. Working with our Iraqi counterparts has been a team effort, in particular the Mitts and the way they rapidly developed the Iraqi Army. Our soldiers proved themselves to be consummate professionals, they can be proud of what they have achieved.”
Iraq will hold a general election on 30 January next year, officials say.
It will be the second time that Iraqis vote for a national parliament since the US-led invasion six years ago.
Correspondents say the election will be a key test for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose allies made big gains in local elections earlier this year.
The last parliamentary vote in December 2005 was largely boycotted by Sunni Arabs, resulting in an easy victory for Shia parties and Kurdish groups.
The office of Iraq's first deputy parliamentary speaker said the date was proposed by the country's federal court and must now be agreed by parliament, Reuters news agency reports.
The decision to hold the election comes after allies of Prime Minister Maliki, under the State of Law Coalition banner, won a resounding victory in the 31 January provincial vote, giving the premier a popular mandate.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
THEY’RE coming home.
Hampshire soldiers have made their last journey out of Iraq and are today on their way back to family and friends.
It’s an historic moment for troops from the 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, and comes slightly earlier than expected, following the end of the British combat mission and the handover of control to the Americans two weeks ago.
The news has been greeted with delight by hundreds of troops from A and C company, who have been in Iraq since December last year.
Lt Col Charlie Sykes, commanding officer of the battalion, said: “I am hugely proud of what the Armoured Tigers have achieved over this demanding operational period. We have a record of achievement second to none, reflected in awards to members of the battalion, but championed by all of us who wear the distinctive blue-yellow- blue flash and Indian tiger motif.”
Since 2003, when the mission was launched to topple Saddam Hussein, the troops – nicknamed The Tigers – have endured three tours of duty on the Iraq frontline.
The first, and possibly their toughest, was in 2004 when the battalion became the most highly decorated serving regiment in the British Army.
A total of 37 medals and awards were handed to The Tigers, including the most prestigious, the Victoria Cross, awarded to Private Johnson Beharry for twice risking his own life while rescuing his men during an intense firefight in Al Amarah.
In 2006 more than 600 Tigers deployed for Op Telic 8 were based in the desert south of Basra. In one of their biggest operations, when they were tasked with carrying out search and arrests in the capital, they came under heavy fire from suspected terrorists for more than four hours. Miraculously all escaped uninjured.
In August that year, the Daily Echo joined them for eight days to see the daily troubles faced by soldiers.
We reported how more than 600 soldiers were coming under fire daily in stifling temperatures of up to 50 degrees. Also that year, Hampshire troops shot dead one of Osama bin Laden’s right hand men during a major operation.
More than 220 soldiers from the battalion stormed a house in Basra and killed the leading al-Qaida terrorist Omar al-Farouq.
Their final stint in Iraq has been far quieter, with more than 350 soldiers deploying from their base in Paderborn, Germany, to assist with the training and development of the Iraqi army.
Lt Col Sykes added: “Not a bullet was fired in contact, in stark contrast to our previous two highly intensive tours.
“Walking around the bazaars and chatting to the locals in Basra, they were sorry to see us leave and were grateful to ourselves and to the Iraqi forces for the huge improvement in security they have seen over the last year.”
Friday, May 15, 2009
Iraq has launched a rare security operation near its border with Kuwait.
Officials said the Iraq Army conducted a large-scale operation in the south near the Kuwaiti border. The operation began on May 11 in the southern Basra province in the area of Mount Sanam.
"The military operation took place within Iraqi territory regardless of the fact that the targeted areas were located near the Kuwaiti or Saudi Arabian borders," Iraq Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Aziz Al Kadhemi said.
Al Kadhemi said the operation by the army's 14th Brigade sought to seize weapons caches by Shi'ite insurgents, Middle East Newsline reported. So far, the general said, more than 100 weapons have been found.
Soldiers from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards have won a Classical Brit Award for an album partly recorded during their tour of duty in Iraq.
They won best album for Spirit of the Glen: Journey, fending off competition from classical music stars such as Andrea Bocelli and Katherine Jenkins.
Some of the tracks were recorded in tents in Basra last year while three of the unit's squadrons were based there.
It is the first time non-professional musicians have won a Classical Brit.
The CD of pipes and drums music is also the first instrumental album to win Album of the Year.
Maj Angus Benson-Blair dedicated the award to British service personnel.
He said: "Tonight's award is obviously about the album but I know everyone in the armed forces will see also each vote as supporting us in everything we do.
"So on behalf of every single soldier, sailor and airman I would like to say a huge and heartfelt thank you for every vote for the pipes and drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Thank you so much."
The award is voted for by Classic FM listeners and readers of its magazine, with the nominees made up of the top ten best-selling classical albums of the past year.
Recording of the album had already begun in Edinburgh last year when the regiment was sent on a six-month tour of Iraq.
Their producers followed the musicians to their camp in Basra to complete the album, which was released last November.
It is thought to be the first album recorded in a war zone.
Their previous album, Spirit of the Glen, stayed at number one in the classical charts for eight weeks over Christmas in 2007.
The Classical Brit awards also saw trumpeter Alison Balsom become the first British woman to win best female.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
With British combat operations in Iraq now completed, the task of moving the thousands of pieces of equipment and vehicles that have been used throughout the operation back to the UK has begun.
Brigadier Paul Stearns, Commander of the Joint Force Logistic Component (JFLogC), has the responsibility to bring the British military's kit home.
To achieve this mammoth task, Brig Stearns heads a team of around 1,000 logistic specialists split between the Basra Contingency Operating Base (COB) and the Kuwait Support Facility in Camp Buehring.
Their job is to conduct, coordinate and check the work being done to return the kit.
Brig Stearns said:
"The tax payer has spent a lot of money over the last six years to give the Armed Forces the right kit to do the job. The important thing for us is to make sure we preserve that investment and get it back on the shelves, ready to use again, as quickly and efficiently as possible."
Asked to put the size of the task into perspective, he said:
"Think of the biggest Halfords store you've ever seen; they have about 10,000 product lines, we stock nearly 13,000 different items.
"To move all the vehicles, equipments and containers back to their various depots would take the entire Eddie Stobart fleet of 1,850 trucks and trailers.
"We've got to take all of them back to the right locations in the UK and Germany, in the right order and in the right condition."
A key part of the logistics team, which consists of both military and civilian personnel, are personnel normally based at the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency in Bicester, Oxfordshire.
Pauline Blaylock is one of the 20 civilians who have been working in Iraq since March. Her role is to ensure containers are intelligently packed so their contents end up in the right location back home. She said:
"I was involved in sending a lot of the equipment to Iraq in 2003, and now I'm doing the reverse job at this end getting everything back."
"We're taking our time and getting it right. It's been successful so far and we're working well with the military, but we're really going to ramp up over the next few weeks."
The operation to return equipment from Basra will take advantage of a number of innovative processes. Key amongst these is The Compendium. This is a list of the tens of thousands of items, stored in more than 19 separate locations in Basra, containing details of how each is to be prepared for storage and where it is to be sent from among dozens of different storage sites across Britain and Germany.
Teams also now check the quality and state of equipment before it is packed and some of the most advanced tracking methods available follow the movements of each item of equipment back to the shelf in the warehouse.
Anything too old to use, or that would cost more to ship back than to replace, is being sold to civilian contractors, eg furniture and non combat vehicles.
But the bulk of equipment will be heading home through Shuaiba Port in Kuwait on journeys undertaken by one of four Ministry of Defence owned RoRo vessels.
Brigadier Stearns said:
"We have a long and enduring relationship with Kuwait and we're very grateful to the authorities and people of the country for allowing us to use their excellent infrastructure."
The end result will be millions of items, from Chap Sticks to Challenger Two main battle tanks, being ready for use again in the shortest time. The Brigadier added:
"We have the time and resources to do things differently and this means we're packing once and packing right."
The JFLOGC is also responsible for ensuring that the 400-plus Service personnel who are planned to remain in Iraq to continue training the Iraqi Forces will be correctly equipped to operate under the new command structure.
The convoy, escorted by the men of D Squadron, Queen’s Royal Hussars (QRH), was met at the border by an Iraqi general who paid tribute to British Forces, saying: “Thank you for all that you have given Iraq”.
Speaking through a translator, Brigadier Bilal Saleh Shkur, the Commander of the Iraqi Army’s 51st Brigade, told Lieutenant Colonel Chris Coles, the Commanding Officer of the QRH: “Congratulations to all your comrades. Hopefully this will be your last mission.”
The Germany-based cavalrymen had spent the first 5 months of this operational deployment concentrating their efforts as a Military Transition Team (MiTT), training and mentoring Brigadier Bilal’s troops from the 51st Brigade’s barracks in central Basra.
As the two officers posed for a photograph on the border, Lt Col Coles said: “I think that this part of Iraq is in safe hands and it has been for some time.”
The Iraqi Brigadier replied: “This is your gift, what you have given to Iraq and what you have done in Iraq,” before embracing the Colonel and wishing him a safe journey.
The convoy had departed the Contingency Operating Base some five hours earlier, with protective escorts provided by the Mastiff armoured vehicles of the QRH, as well as by other soldiers from across 20th Armoured Brigade, including 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (1PWRR), 1st Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (1 YORKS) and 1st Royal Tank Regiment (1RTR).
Piper Lee Watson, 23 serving with 1RTR, piped the final British convoy across the border into Kuwait in the early hours of Monday morning. The 93 vehicle convoy of combat vehicles and equipment took 14 minutes to pass though the border, with its load ranging from a huge container-grabbing ‘Wretch’ vehicle to trucks packed with various smaller items.
There was a feeling of satisfaction among the soldiers who were conscious that they were involved in the final Brigade-led operation at the end of the 6-year British military commitment in Iraq, codenamed ‘Operation Telic’.
19-year-old Trooper Luke Pinner serving with the QRH said: “I’m quite proud to be on the last convoy, to be the last troops out of Basra. This is my first tour, so I’ll never forget it. We’ve done the job and we’re leaving.”
Trooper Jamie Ratcliffe, 19 from Stock-on-Trent, added: “I have enjoyed the tour, but I’m glad it’s over. It’s a good feeling knowing that we’ve done our part. Obviously it hasn’t been like any of the other ‘Op Telics’, but I do feel like I’ve made a difference. I am glad I’m here on the last one.”
Lt Col Chris Coles continued: “I was just finishing off some unfinished business, saying farewell to Brig Bilal. We spent five months working alongside him and his brigade before we took on this escort task, so I was very honoured and touched that he made the journey all the way down from Basra just to see us on what you might call ‘the finishing line’.
“It’s always quite nice to be there as a Regiment when things are coming to a close. I know we’ve still got people in theatre, but as a Regiment, I think the Queen’s Royal Hussars can be very content to go home.
“We’ve finished off what a lot of other good men have started and it’s quite a privileged situation to be in to say ‘job done’, and I think job done well.”
The events at the border came just over a week after the Brigade’s flag, ‘The Iron Fist’, had been lowered in a transfer of authority ceremony in Basra. Over the next couple of weeks, the few remaining troops from 20 Armd Bde will return to their barracks across Germany and the UK as they complete the final withdrawal of all personnel and equipment the last combat brigade from Iraq.
Speaking from Kuwait after the final convoy had arrived in the UK base at Camp Buehring, logistician Lt Col Peter Smith, CO of 1 Logistic Support Regiment (1LSR), explained: “What we’ve achieved is like dismantling the town of Shrivenham, moving it across the M4 and reassembling it in Cardiff.”
“A staggering amount of kit has been moved – it’s twelve tour’s worth of equipment that has gone. And then of course since the first of May, since there have been no combat operations in Iraq, we’ve been far more aggressive in returning back to the United Kingdom and Germany all of those items that can be used again.
“It’s been very satisfying; it’s not every day that you get the opportunity to extract British Forces from a theatre and it’s particularly satisfying for 1LSR. 1LSR was here at the beginning for ‘Telic 1’ and it’s nice to be the regiment that is extracting 20 Brigade and all British Forces from Iraq.”
The Brigade’s progress can be followed online at www.twitter.com/theironfist
The Iraqi government said Wednesday it was studying a formal agreement to have a few hundred British sailors stay past the end of a mandate that expires in July to train their Iraqi counterparts.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said bilateral negotiations would focus on ways to train and support the Iraqi navy to help protect ports and oil facilities in Basra, in southern Iraq. Protection of the oil terminals is crucial because cash from oil sales accounts for more than 90% of Iraqi government revenue. Iraq also faces oil smuggling, border disputes with Iran and other issues in that area.
Since December, when a July pullout date for U.K. troops was agreed, the Iraqi and British governments have both expected that a small number of British personnel would stay behind. In April, the U.K. military said it expected to keep 400 personnel in Iraq to help train the navy and conduct general officer training.
The port of Um Qasr in Basra province is Iraq's only link to the Persian Gulf. The port is the second-largest source of revenue for the Iraqi government, after oil receipts. During the British military's six years in Iraq, it has focused on helping its Iraqi counterparts develop security for the ports and oil facilities in Basra.
The Iraqi and U.K. governments had agreed the British would complete their mission by June, and a complete withdrawal would take place by the end of July. Most of the 4,100 British troops in Iraq have already left the country. The British troops are being replaced by more than 5,000 American forces.
Mr. Dabbagh said the possible pact would be presented to the Iraqi parliament for approval.
A British military spokesman couldn't be reached to comment.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
The defendants were officials of Iraq's former ruling Baath party who allegedly killed two British soldiers after they were captured by militias near Basra.
Pictures taken of Luke Allsopp and Simon Cullingworth after the ambush were later shown on al-Jazeera TV.
Faisal al-Saadoon and Khalaf Mufdhi are being tried under Iraqi jurisdiction.
They were handed over to the Iraqi High Tribunal by British military last December after the House of Lords rejected objections to them being tried in Iraq.
Lawyers for the men had argued allowing them to stand trial in Iraq, where they could face the death penalty, violated both the European Convention on Human Rights and the 1998 Human Rights Act.
Since the invasion in 2003, British fatalities in Iraq have totalled 179, including 136 killed in action.
Staff Sgt Cullingworth and Sapper Allsopp were both wounded when Iraqi Fedayeen forces ambushed their convoy on the outskirts of Zubayr on March 2003.
While some members of the convoy escaped, the pair were taken to a local Baath party headquarters and then to an Iraqi intelligence base, where they were shot dead.
Footage of the two soldiers lying wounded near their vehicle was broadcast by Qatari-owned al-Jazeera, prompting condemnation by the British government.
The soldiers' graves were discovered a month later and their bodies were exhumed.
Sapper Allsopp, from north London, and Sgt Cullingworth, from Essex, were both in the 33 Engineer Regiment - a specialist bomb disposal unit of the Royal Engineers based in Wimbish, Essex.
The Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Justice said they have been given assurances at the "highest level" that both men would receive a fair trial and treatment, whatever the outcome of the case.
Monday, May 11, 2009
INJURED Army Major Phil Packer scored a unique triumph in the London Marathon on Saturday – finishing the race nearly two weeks after he started.
Fifteen months ago the gutsy military policeman was told he would never walk again after he was paralysed in a rocket attack in Iraq. Although he slowly regained some feeling in his legs, it was only in March this year that he managed his first steps.
Yet with the help of crutches, 36-year-old Phil managed a gruelling two miles of the Marathon each day – the maximum that doctors would allow – and was able to complete the 26-mile journey.
Now he hopes to raise £1million for the Sun-backed charity Help for Heroes and by last night he had already been pledged more than £770,000.
Here is his remarkable diary detailing his marathon ordeal.
DAY 1: It’s harder than I thought. I make it to Woolwich Common and I’m shattered. It’s a different pain — I haven’t done this distance before.
DAY 2: A very hard day — cold, wet and I ache.
Passing the £400,000 mark is fantastic, but now it will be a difficult time and the support of everyone has never been so vital to reach the £1million.
DAY 3: Joined by the Fire Service, the City of London Police and the Coldstream Guards as I walk through Greenwich. They really help me along as today is gruelling and they lift my spirits.
DAY 4: Very emotional. Joined by Company Sergeant Major Kat Gallagher who never left my side when I was injured.
Go to my first function as a Prince’s Trust Ambassador tonight and I am shattered.
DAY 5: Really tough day, with pain. I’m accompanied by Mrs Babs Free, wife of my commander in Iraq, and Claude, a fellow patient from Stanmore Hospital in Middlesex.
End the day in tears after an emotional welcome from Redriff School in Southwark.
DAY 6: A really good day and I’m delighted to be joined by three whole schools en route, which lifts my spirits.
DAY 7: It’s a great feeling to reach the half-way point at the Tower of London. I felt I let people down leaving Iraq early when I was hurt. I won’t let them down again.
DAY 8: Almost at the half-way point for the £1million.
The Sun newspaper turns up and I am hoping their article tomorrow will drum up support to help raise the rest.
DAY 9: Certainly getting harder to walk as the days go on. I’m joined by Major Peter Norton GC who is an absolute inspiration to me.
A great guy and it’s super that he came up from Shrivenham in Wiltshire to say hello.
DAY 10: A good day through Canary Wharf but just when I think it will be a dry-eye day, I’m joined by Joe, the Army padre who stayed with me the night I was injured.
DAY 11: As I near journey’s end I am exhausted and in a lot of pain. But the public’s support has been amazing and spurs me on.
Tonight I have the honour of speaking at the Back-Up Trust annual fundraising dinner, a charity that has given me so much and helped me through my dark days at Stanmore Spinal Unit.
DAY 12: Very hard day physically, very sore, and back is very uncomfortable but support has been quite amazing.
Visited the London offices of The Sun where they all have been very supportive. Having the paper behind me throughout my quest has boosted the fundraising. It’s nice to meet some of the staff behind that.
DAY 13: A year ago I never thought this would be possible and there are so many to thank.
Stanmore Hospital, the MoD and Armed Forces have all been outstanding to me. I am walking because of them.
I also know how very lucky I have been to have this mobility. So many are not.
DAY 14: Mission accomplished. Thanks very much to everyone for all the support given to me on this marathon challenge.
I am sincerely grateful.
Online - go to justgiving.com/philsmillion
By phone - Call 0300 200 1066 and use the automated system (calls at national rate)
By text - Text HERO to 60999 to donate £5, which will be deducted from your phone bill
By cheque - Click here for the postal address and download gift aid form
A military dog handler who risked rocket attacks and roadside bombs to protect British forces in war-torn Iraq is preparing to fly home.
Corporal Andy Moan is to be reunited with his loved ones in Sunderland after completing a tour of duty in Basra.
The RAF police dog handler served with the Theatre Military Dog Support Unit on patrol at the province's international airport playing a vital security role during the hostilities.
Risking attack by rocket-propelled grenades and Improvised Explosive Devices, the team use their canine counterparts' razor sharp senses to protect personnel and vital equipment from criminal and terrorist threats.
But last month marked the official end of the six-year British mission in the country and now the 22-year-old, who has also served on operations in Afghanistan, is preparing to join the thousands of troops returning home.
"My duties have included working as a police dog handler, as well as other wider duties involved with the policing of military operations on a civilian airfield," said Cpl Moan.
"Working closely with my dog, our aim has been to detect and deter any intruders and to provide military working dog support to ongoing transition operations."
The former Farringdon Community School pupil, who joined the RAF in 2002, is looking forward to flying home and seeing his family, including mum Lynne and dad Colin, and girlfriend Michelle.
"I love you all and will see you soon," said Cpl Moan. "I'm also looking forward to having home-cooked meals and a few beers with my friends. I'll see you all when I get back.
"I also want to thank the people of the UK for all their support for the armed forces."
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Combat operations in Iraq may have officially ended for the UK, but personnel from RAF Honington will be remaining in Basra as British activity there winds down.
In a ceremony at Basra airport last Thursday, the British armed forces lowered their flag and formally handed control of the base to the American military, six years after the war began.
But 150 airmen from 15 Squadron RAF Regiment, who left for a four-month tour of duty in February, still remain in Basra and will be one of the last units to leave the base when it is handed over to Iraq's security forces.
Last month, the squadron joined a joint US/UK patrol to Il Mithar, a village north of their base in Basra, where they met Iraqi National Police and delivered footballs, books and stationery to schools, getting the chance to speak to some of the pupils there.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, the Government's commitment to the conflict in Afghanistan was underlined as it opened a £14 million facility designed to help troops train for combat in the Middle East.
The Ministry of Defence officially opened new areas at its Stanford Training Area (Stanta), just north of Thetford, last Thursday, with the new facility to provide training to all troops deploying to Afghanistan.
With the help of Afghan nationals and others who will take on the role of insurgents, its rural Middle Eastern village and urban Middle Eastern complex have been designed to mirror situations soldiers could find on the ground.
The training area, which was previously used for training troops heading to Northern Ireland and took eight months to develop, will replicate the sights, smells and sounds of the region, with calls to prayer across a market place, a family home and a network of claustrophobic alleyways.
General Sir David Richards, commander in chief of land forces, said: "These new training facilities mean that we will be giving our soldiers the very best chance to succeed in today's complex operations and return home safely.
"I am proud that we can now offer today's armed forces the facilities they deserve to best equip them for the job we ask of them on operations."
Saturday, May 9, 2009
In the southern Iraqi city, poetry and music have returned since Iraqi forces wrested control from Shiite extremists last year.
At Al Rasheed radio, poet Khalid al-Mayahi leans into the microphone and pours out his heart to the city, using words that could have gotten him killed before Iraqi forces took back Basra last year from Shiite extremists.
"I am a monk for your love. I built the biggest church in my soul for you," he recites, waving his arms with passion to echo the verses he's written. The poignant improvisation of violinist Na'el Hamid next to him soars onto the airwaves. The announcer picks up a traditional Arabic oud to accompany them.
In this city, with its crumbling beauty and centuries of culture, the poetry and music that were driven underground when the militias were in charge are beginning to blossom again.
"I inscribed a cross in my heart," continues Mr. Mayahi, who looks like a film star and recites as if he's on fire. "In the universe, there is no one else like you – you are a question wrapped in an entire book."
The live program is mesmerizing, and in this deprived city, it falls like a welcome rain. The phone lines light up with young women who want to share their own love poems; a poetry-loving police sergeant calls in to every show.
"Iraqi people want music. They want a new life, an open life – especially in Basra," says station manager Nawfal al-Obeid. Mr. Obeid, a journalist, left Iraq in 2006 after a friend was kidnapped and killed, and just returned eight months ago. "In Basra, it is starting to be stable, but not 100 percent. You can say 60 or 75 percent."
The station, an offshoot of Baghdad's Al Rasheed radio, which combines music, poetry and talk, is just two months old.
But poetry here goes back centuries. To Iraqis, it is like breathing. In radio programs in Baghdad, callers phone in to request poems the same way one requests a favorite song. The death of a major poet is an occasion of national mourning.
Basra, as part of ancient Sumer, had an advanced civilization 5,000 years ago. The Sumerians were believed to have invented the first system of writing. The city, on the Shatt al-Arab, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, is the setting for the epic tale of Sinbad the Sailor and tens of thousands of poems that followed.
Poets, poets everywhere
These days, you can barely turn around in Basra without running into a poet.
On the corniche along the Shatt al-Arab, where families stroll after dusk, two earnest young poets carrying copybooks lean against the railing watching the boats go by.
One of the boats carries a wedding party – young men wearing denim jeans beating drums and dancing with joyous abandon on the roof – a sight unthinkable before last spring.
Ali al-Munsury and Saif al-Hilifi, both university students at the University of Basra, write shaaby poetry – popular or street poetry – written and recited in colloquial dialect rather than the more complex classical Arabic. Often turned into popular songs, it's poetry for the masses.
"We are writing popular poetry because of our love and respect for traditional literature," says Mr. Mansury, complaining that government cultural officials don't take them seriously. When Basra was recently declared Iraq's cultural capital by the Iraqi government, no popular poets were invited to the ceremony, he says.
Love – and security – are favorite topics
In the intensely emotional Arab culture, most poems are about love, much of it the hopeless kind. But among Basra's younger generation of poets, there's a twist. "Most of the poetry we write is about the security situation and the tragedy in Iraq – I write about the widows and orphans," says Mansury, whose biggest concern isn't romance – it's finding a job when he graduates.
Asked to recite something he'd written, though, Mansury furrows his brow, takes a deep breath, and falls back on love.
"Your leaving is a fire that can't be extinguished if I drank the Nile," he intones into the distance.
Mr. Hilifi says their latest poetry reflects the improvement in the city's security.
"We've switched to a nationalist poetry that calls for optimism more than sadness," says Hilifi, in a checked yellow shirt and wearing fashionable dark glasses at dusk. "Now we can see the seagulls starting to go back to the Shatt al-Arab and the water beginning to clear and the situation improving, thank God. Now the optimism is floating on our poetry," he says.
But not in the poem he chooses to recite. "Passion is a diamond," he says. "My heart skips a beat at your desertion.... In the moment of your leaving, I catch you, then turn away, but can't retrieve my hand."
It's the poor who write popular poetry, they say. And the poor who supported the movement under Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militias controlled Basra.
The two men, admirers of the Sadr movement, say the real movement had little to do with the radical militias that had controlled parts of Basra in his name.
"When we are talking about the Sadr movement, there are many militias that appeared and don't represent the Sadr movement, because the Sadr movement is ideology and culture," says Munsury.
"Many people joined this movement because of their resistance to the occupation," says Hilifi. He says others supported it because the Sadrists were the only ones helping the poor.
Those difficult days are gone, says Hilifi, who is studying mathematics.
"We are optimistic about the future. We hope Iraq comes back as before ... that all the tears will be erased and all the problems of Iraqi youths will be solved," he says. "The Iraqi people are very good people. They like life, and events that passed are a test to prove that the Iraqi people are good."
It's a phrase one hears over and over in Basra, in particular. Translated as "good people," the word even other Iraqis use to describe Basrawis is taybeen – good-natured. Basrawis love their coastal city – or their memories of it – with the same passion that goes out on the airwaves of Radio Rasheed in the evening.
"I couldn't stay outside Iraq because I love my city," says Obeid, the station manager. "I grew up here. Every night I would remember my neighbors, my friends – my friends who are still alive, my friends that I already lost."
Obeid, who went to Oman, describes the years under militia control as "insane," "when you couldn't trust anyone. You can lose your life in a minute."
He left after his friend Fakher Haider, who was working for The New York Times, was abducted by men in police uniforms and murdered in 2005. He says he came back to try to make things better in Basra in honor of his friend.
Making up for five years of disruption
Obeid says the big challenge now is making up for the past five years when there was almost no reconstruction. The city would like to attract investors but has hours of electricity cuts a day and infrastructure suffering from decades of neglect.
After the past years, when Iraqis would have been targeted for speaking a foreign language, Obeid says his station is planning to broadcast songs in English as soon as he finds a female announcer, considered more relaxing than a male voice. With a 65-mile radius, the FM station currently broadcasts 20 hours a day.
"People love English songs, and they ask us to broadcast them after midnight – they stay up until 3 a.m. or so, and that's when they want to listen to them."
The station will always have an element of religion, since that's part of the culture.
"We play the Holy Koran," he says, "followed by soft music.".
Friday, May 8, 2009
It has developed a guide aimed at helping UK construction firms win contracts, and set up both a National Investment Commission and a Basra Investment Commission to act as points of contact for UK firms seeking Iraqi government contracts.
According to MEED Projects, the research arm of Construction News’ sister title Middle East Economic Digest, some $46 billion (£31bn) worth of reconstruction work is planned to be tendered in the coming months and years to rebuild the war-torn country.
Head of the Middle East Unit at UK Trade and Investment Paul Taylor said Britain’s historic ties with Iraq meant UK contractors were in a strong position to pick up contracts, particularly in the south of the country.
He said: “The strong message we have from [prime minister] Nouri Al-Maliki is that he wants British contractors to be bidding for these contracts.
“And in terms of winning contracts, the locals would feel more strongly about the US in the way that they have engaged in the country, whereas the UK is still regarded very highly.”
A draft copy of the UKTI guide, due out in the summer, reveals that the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works has a budget of up to$741 million (£497m) and is tendering for around 35 major new water and wastewater treatment plants.
The guide also emphasises the growing importance of the Ministry of Construction and Housing, which is in charge of improving 45,000 km of dilapidated roads in the country.
Rail, aviation and the ports and maritime department are all also seeking to undertake major projects, according to the guide.
On 30 April, at a meeting of 250 UK companies and Iraqi officials in London, Business secretary Peter Mandelson signed a memorandum of understanding with the Iraqi deputy Prime Minister, Barhan Salih, to improve business ties.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Major Phil Packer, the Royal Military Police officer who was told he would never walk again after a bombing in Basra, is still slowly making his way towards the finish line.
More than two thirds through the 26.2 mile course, Major Packer hobbled past Tower Bridge this morning, accompanied by a band of well-wishers and a support soundtrack of beeps from passing motorists.
Although the pain from every excruciating step was evident by the grimace on his face, Major Packer - in typical style - underplayed his torment.
“Its like doing anything difficult. You put your head down and get on with it,” he said.
“It’s bloody painful. But I’m doing alright.”
Major Packer was rendered paraplegic in a rocket attack on the British base in Basra in February last year. Deployed as the force marshal overseeing up to 5,000 men, he was knocked down by an armoured vehicle in the chaos following a rocket attack on the British base.
He suffered bruising to his heart, broken ribs and an injury to the base of his spine. He was left a paraplegic and doctors told him that he would not walk again.
Major Packer intends to complete the marathon by Saturday - aided by a pair of crutches and sheer determination.
He said that the fellow injured soldiers that he met at Headley Court, the military rehabilitation centre in Surrey, had motivated him.
“If you see a 19-year-old who has had a triple amputation and is trying to make the most of it - I can’t imagine what that is like. I just want to do this for him.”
His target is to raise £1 million for Help for Heroes, a charity for injured soldiers. He says that if he does not hit that target, he will feel he has let people down.
Along his journey through vast swathes of London, Major Packer has received overwhelming support from the public.
Ambulances, taxis and ordinary vehicles have stopped to give donations. Since the beginning of the marathon, Major Packer has collected £360,000, raising his overall total to £570,000.
To date, despite his incapacity, Major Packer has rowed the Channel in rough seas, sailed unassisted, achieved a sky dive and completed a water-skiing event.
In three weeks time, after recovering from the marathon, he will travel to El Capitan in Yosemite National Park to complete his year of activity.
Then he will return to work for a two-year posting in London with the Royal Military Police.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
As British troops leave Basra, this exhibition by Iraqi photojournalist Essam al-Sudani looks at the daily life of ordinary Iraqis.
Through his lens al-Sudani, 29, captures a series of wonderfully composed images from a city that has been much in the news but little seen by the world at large - and which itself has seen traumatic but also hopeful changes over the past year.
The exhibition is supported by the Department for International Development (DFID).
DFID was introduced to Essam's work when he attended a DFID funded Iraqi media training initiative to support a strong, free and independent media in Basra. The media training was part of a range of programmes that DFID has funded in Iraq to support reconstruction.
Oxo Tower Wharf
London SE1 9PH
020 7021 1600
AS British Forces end their combat operations in Iraq, one Longridge soldier has been talking about his time serving in Basra.
Major Jim Faux, A-Company, 5 Rifles, is based at British Forward Operating Base (FOB) Oxford, nestled on the bank of the Qarmat Ali waterway in Southern Iraq.
It is a primitive and deceptively isolated camp and soldiers of 5th Battalion The Rifles (5 Rifles), an armoured infantry unit, spend seven days at a time in the camp three miles north of Contingency Operating Base (COB) Basra, living on rations and sleeping under mosquito nets.
There is room in the tents for a single platoon of around 27 men, as well as five or six royal engineers - the latter responsible for six boats moored at the site, used to take 5 Rifles soldiers out on patrol on nearby Leaf Island.
And it is these patrols which have proved crucially successful in the stabilisation of the province.
FOB Oxford's primary role is to deter what the men call indirect fire - essentially rocket and mortar attacks launched from Leaf Island on to the COB.
Since the base was set up, not a single rocket has been launched from the area.
Major Faux said: "The place is very busy, but the blokes love it. They're out and about doing something.
"No patrol is the same. They know the ground very well now, they can easily pick up anything abnormal."
Interaction with the local population on Leaf Island is at the centre of operations from FOB Oxford. As well as being stopped and searched, 5 Rifles are able to gather valuable information about potential threats.
Major Faux said: "The locals know we're here. They come in and tell us 'there's a bad man in the area'. They realise we're providing security.
"Just three weeks ago a guy came in and took us to a rocket found on the island. It was ready to launch."
The men have certainly made the base their own.
A map of the surrounding waterways has been meticulously laid out using blue J-Cloths, with premiership football teams used to identify certain points, in place of complicated co-ordinates.
They have even adopted a stray dog, dubbed "D-For, as in D For Dog."
A makeshift gym lies in one corner, not far from one of three armed sangars - looking posts - set up on the perimeter of the base.
When they have time to spare, the men will sit around the cooking pot fire, play cards or sometimes chess.
But FOB Oxford will not stand for much longer.
Capt Steve Morte has been tasked with scaling it down now that combat operations have ended.
He said: "The base has been very effective. But southern Iraq is a different place now. So we're here to bring it all down."
Colin Laker, 42, a former pupil of Katharine Lady Berkeley's School in Wotton-under-Edge, is currently deployed at the Contingency Operating Base (COB) just outside Basra.
He is responsible for the safety of British troops and aircraft operating from the COB.
Colin will be among the last to leave when UK troops depart the military theatre of operations by July 31.
In the meantime, he is coordinating the critical provision of security to the multinational force's military base in Basra.
He said: "I am really enjoying my tour here and coordinating operations uses a tremendously wide range of combat operators and specialised equipment.
"Knowing that I’m having a direct bearing on ensuring the safe and timely return of the last British troops back to the UK is also extremely rewarding."
As the Deputy Officer Commanding of No7 Force Protection Wing, Colin said: "I am part of a highly trained team that is wholly responsible for the safety of British troops and aircraft operating from the COB.
"Every part of the risk and hazards of operating in Iraq is mitigated by the expertly trained RAF Police, RAF Regiment and British Infantry personnel that I coordinate."
Colin joined the Royal Air Force Regiment in 1986 and this is one of many differing roles that he has undertaken during his career.
He has served at numerous locations across the UK and overseas, including Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Oman, America and Germany. When he’s not deployed, he is based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.
"This tour in Iraq provides constant challenges but as a result of our work, we are assisting the Iraqi nation to rebuild and develop confidence in its own Armed Forces and Police.
"It is the British success in this area that has enabled the departure of UK troops this summer," he added.
He said the mosquitoes, flies and dust storms were the less enjoyable elements of the job and being away from his family and friends was hard, in particular his wife Paula and daughter Evelyn, but he was looking forward to returning soon.
In a message to his family, Colin said: "Don’t worry about me, I’m with the best there is. I miss you all very much, the pace of life is really fast here, but I think about you all just before I go to sleep every day.
"Have confidence that the Brits are doing a good job out here and we are all working really hard to get back home and see you all soon."
An active sportsman, Colin is a keen skydiver and, as an enthusiastic member of the Parachute Display Team 'The Falling Rocks', said he was looking forward to donning his parachute and getting airborne again on his return to the UK.